Biography & Autobiography
April 28, 2009
In sumptuous and illuminating detail, Simon Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham—the brilliant Cambridge scientist, freethinking intellectual, and practicing nudist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, once the world's most technologically advanced country.
Aside from the breadth of topics he covers while telling the story of one man’s life’s work, he writes about and discusses topics which should be part of everyone’s personal cultural knowledge. As a small example, he makes mention of one of the real life archaeologists who served as a model for Indiana Jones – though sadly he only makes the direct connection in a footnote which many may not likely read.
Though I had originally picked up the book out of general curiosity (not to diminish the fact that I’m on a quest to read every word Winchester has written), I find that it also neatly fits into providing some spectacular background on the concept of “Big History” (see Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History) as it relates to China’s place in the world. In particular “Needham’s question” (briefly: Why, given China’s illustrious past, did modern science not develop there after the 1500’s?) turned around becomes a interesting illustration on the course of human history and the rises and falls of cultures and societies since the Holocene.
For those who may miss the significance, I was particularly impressed with the overall literary power imbued to the book by the use of the book-ended contrasts of Needham’s Chongqing at the opening of the work and modern day Chongqing at the close. This is one of the few times that the mechanics behind how Winchester, the master of telling often non-linear stories, has been patently obvious to me. I hope one day to unravel all of his other secrets. I can only imagine that in his heavy research of his topics, he somehow internally sees the ultimately magical ways in which he will present the information.
I will note that, in contrast to some of his past works, this one had some better physical maps and photos to go along with the text, although I was highly disappointed in their unusable presentation in the e-book version of the book. (Higher dpi versions would have gone a long way, particularly with the ability to zoom in on them in most e-readers.) For those unfortunate enough to have the e-book copy, I commend picking up a physical copy of the book for better interpretations of the photos and maps included.
Finally, perhaps for Winchester’s benefit, I’ll note that typically I would give this book a full five stars in comparing it will all others, but I’m comparing it only with Winchester’s other works and, so it stands at four, and that only because there isn’t the ability to give tenths or hundredths.
- 12/17/09 marked as: want to read; “Purchased copy from Amazon.com.”
- 12/27/09 Purchased copy from Amazon.com.
- 02/05/10 started reading
- 04/24/10 started reading again
- 04/24/2010 8.81% done or on page 31 of 316; “Simon Winchester has such a lovely writing style and grasp of language. I’m depressed that I’ve finished reading most of his works.”
- 12/03/12 started reading again from the beginning
- 12/03/2012 09.0% done
- 12/10/2012 20.0% done
- 12/17/2012 30.0% done
- 12/20/2012 40.0% done
- 12/31/12 Finished book
Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia
John Hay, America’s secretary of state at the turn of the twentieth century, remarked in 1899 that China was now the “storm center of the world,” and that whoever took the time and trouble to understand “this mighty empire” would have “a key to politics for the next five centuries.”
Guide to highlight colors
Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green–Reference to read
Red–Example to work through